A text by art historian Frano Dulibić for the graphic novel Like a Dog, published by Fraktura, Croatia, June, 2023.
Cage of Freedom
Danijel Žeželj’s graphic novel “Like a Dog” is based on motifs from Kafka's short story "A Hunger Artist" and some of his other works. It begins with a close-up shot of a horse's head, focusing on the eye, and on the next page, the entire horse's head is visible, with its mane revealing that the horse is in full gallop. Then the entire horse with its rider is shown, and finally their departure. The rhythm of the increasingly distant horse and rider continues on the next page with Kafka's poetic thought, which can be experienced as a prose poem published under the title "A Wish to Be an Indian."
Žeželj's drawing technique has been reflecting exceptional skill for decades, with a recognizable, developed style characterized by strong contrasts of light and shadow. This achieves an unusual dramatic effect and strong expressiveness of the scene, which is also characteristic of this graphic novel. The composition of each panel is impressive due to the way it arranges frames (in comic strip terms, panels), often in long horizontal or vertical shots, which develop the plot's drama. This is followed by a calming conclusion, punctuated by a panel showing only one scene. This creates a pause (visual and mental, meditative) in the narration.
The beginning of this narrative with a depiction of the unity of animal and man, an allegory of complete freedom, will be followed by a scene that is in complete contrast: a crowd of people standing on the street, maybe even a square, with an industrial city behind them. It is actually with this scene that we come to the story of the artist in starvation. The text, which is not in comic book bubbles but in regular rectangular frames, as if represents a distant narrator, more of an inner voice than spoken words, a voice of silence. This ensures the domination of the image, or the atmosphere that the image creates, like a silent movie. This also allows us to feel a range of sounds that arise from individual scenes, even strong noises, but also complete silence, a meditative state. As if at times, the world of deafening noise touches the world of equally monumental silence.
Žeželj's scenes are full of references that connect literature and visual arts. The figure of the starving artist can be seen as an allusion to Kafka, since he wears Kafka's recognizable hat, and the tower wrapped in a spiral ramp on top of which the artist stands could be reminiscent of Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International". After all, the spiral itself can be interpreted as a symbol of spiritual growth, creation, evolution, and consciousness. The butchers who guard the starving artist briefly turn into the heads of a rooster, a bull, and a pig, like characters from Orwell's "Animal Farm". Motifs derived from literature or paying homage to works from art history do not affect the perception and following of the story about the artist unless the viewer/reader recognizes the depicted sources. A poetic mood dominates within which a series of fundamental questions are raised, from the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, to the relationship between the masses and the individual. Žeželj’s design provided an adequate interpretation of Kafka's complex symbolism and ambiguity. Željelj never settles for retelling literary (or visual) models. In this example, we see that he simultaneously brings Kafka's text to life, interprets it, adds new meanings to it, thus creating a new image.
Kafka's story places great importance on the number 40. The starving artist fasts for 40 days. Kafka's religiosity remains a puzzling subject of interpretation for many literary theorists. Žeželj emphasizes the significance of the 40-day fast, and it is impossible not to mention the importance it holds in the Bible. Lent, the period of 40 days leading up to Easter, is a time of penance, fasting, and contemplation for Christians. Moses and other biblical prophets also fasted for 40 days before Jesus did. Kafka clearly draws on Christian tradition, but interestingly, his artist seeks to overcome it. Žeželj marks the moment when the artist wishes to surpass the limit of 40 days of fasting with a vertical division of the scene within the page (panel no. 14). While horizontals denote the earthly and material, verticals determine the spiritual and immaterial, in this case, spiritual growth, breaking the limits into the world of unlimited spiritual freedom. Misunderstanding, solitude, and asceticism will persist until a sudden turn of events, when the artist fires his agent (impresario) and decides to join the circus.
Žeželj creates a spiritual climax in a unique way when he takes the artist to a place that looks like a Mayan or Aztec temple with enormous, impressive doors at the top. In a visually stunning manner, Žeželj used the most impressive doors ever created by human hands, Rodin's "Gates of Hell," which fit perfectly into the story. In Žeželj's interpretation of Kafka's work, the fasting artist receives unusual offshoots, episodes from other stories such as "The Emperor's Message." This makes our reading and experience more complex and layered, changing the rhythm of the narration, and layering and/or compressing space and time. In addition, towards the end of the story, Žeželj changes the perspective in such a way that we as observers begin to follow the scenes seen by the fasting artist, intensifying the drama of his agony.
In the dialogue between the workers cleaning the cages and the artist, the reader/observer is once again only a silent witness to the conversation. After the funeral and the conversion of the cage, which becomes a cage for a young and strong panther, the observer is put in a position to admire the beautiful animal (because Žeželj is an excellent animalist). The panther is a symbol of freedom admired by all, a freedom trapped in a cage, and the fasting artist, who embodies complete freedom, especially the freedom of creation, disappears as if he had never existed. If we remember that this graphic novel started with a horse and rider, the circle is closed through the figure of the animal, the idea of freedom returns to the starting point, and the story is complete.
In the final part of Kafka's story about the hunger artist, the symbolic meaning of the cage in which the artist lived plays an important role. The simplest visual adaptation would be to illustrate the artist in a cage. However, as we have previously concluded, Žeželj does not illustrate, he is a creative interpreter who depicts his exceptionally strong visions. In addition to being a master of changing perspectives, Žeželj truly provides a vision of the cage, using quick changes of view into or out of the cage without showing its interior. In addition to the dramatic dynamics, the motif of the cage bars becomes caesuras, or verticals that divide the horizontal stripes of the frame, like smaller comic book squares or rectangles that, with their rhythm, accelerate the dynamics of the action or, simply put, create a more complex dramaturgy of events. These frames reveal to us that the comic book is the perfect medium for the motif of the cage, and that the experience of freedom for every observer is most powerful precisely from within the cage. Not at all coincidentally, the last panel depicts a crowd divided by vertical framing. Indeed, although the simplest, it is the most impressive solution, because it represents the view of a young panther and a crowd that does not understand that it is in an (invisible) cage.
Creating a graphic novel about spiritual enlightenment through renunciation of all material things, even food, is an example of contemplating freedom of creation in any time and space. Viewed from one angle, our world is entirely different from Žeželj's: in our time, people do not starve for the sake of creative expression and spiritual enlightenment. Instead, many people suffer from hunger due to obesity, actors and models starve for their work, and some suffer from eating disorders. From another perspective, the post-apocalyptic world depicted by Žeželj (and Kafka) is similar to our own: an urban space where man is lost and alone, true art and humanity are rare occurrences, and people tend to cling to trends, sensationalism, and spectacles. Paradoxically, the graphic novel "Like a Dog," about the (perhaps) last artist who is so honest and fanatically dedicated to his art that he dies for it, actually revives the idea of true, sincere art, and opens up new horizons for future times. The artist's tragic fate of starving himself to death is a tribute to artists and art that are yet to come, which will arise like a phoenix. But in this story, the rebirth is symbolized not by the phoenix, but by a much stronger and more aggressive animal: a young panther, with a view from the dystopia in which we live towards better times that we can only hope for.